The one, and only, officially sanctioned Automotive Thunderboat Race

Jerry Schoenith presents: The one, and only, officially sanctioned Automotive Thunderboat Race

It happened in September of 1987 on the Detroit River at Wyandotte . . .

The first and only APBA-sanctioned Automotive Thunderboat race, the Downriver River Roar, held Sept. 27, 1987 at Wyandotte. Michigan, got off with a whimper, but finished with a bang as Pierre Lavigne of Quebec piloted Joe and Millie Schoenith’s Golden Thunder to a decisive victory in the Final Heat.

With little time for publicity, and bucking two other boat races in the region, plus a Tiger pennant-race baseball game, promoter Jerry Schoenith took a financial bath on this milestone event, but it didn’t matter. The champagne bath he took from his drivers at the awards presentation after the race washed away the disappointment.

The race program, scheduled to start at noon, didn’t get going until 2:30, with the Jersey Speed Skiffs, OPC outboards and Ford Cobra boats providing the warm-up acts. The first ATA heat featured three single-engined craft; Warren Wilhelm’s Wilhelm Special driven by John Huganir, the ThunderKids driven by Butch Reim, and Thundercraft with Pierre Lavigne.

The trio ran together in extremely rough waters on the Detroit River 1⅔ mile course. Wilhelm Special, a step-up from the Grand Prix Class, led on the inside, followed by Thundercraft, another GP hull. ThunderKids, the former Miss MerCruiser of Jon Prevost, now owned by Schoenith, trailed on the outside. The boats were scheduled to run four laps, but ran five. Huganir won by an eyelash over Lavigne in the tough going, with Reim a distant third.

The second heat featured Lavigne in the Golden Thunder, the boat that later became the Unlimited U-88 Miss Detroit, Ted Nugent Free-for-all driven by Doug Felster, and Unocal ‘76, the former Double Trouble driven by Wes Carman.

The three ATA boats made a good start with Golden Thunder leading, Unocal second and Free-for-all last and trying to find a lane up the middle. Suddenly, in the middle of the first back-stretch. Felster’s boat lost its rudder, hooked to the inside in a violent turn, then straightened out. The referee, fearing for Felster’s safety and noticing debris around the floating craft, stopped the race. Lavigne and Carman raced on for two more laps before seeing the red flags and flares.

The heat was called complete and Felster was towed in unhurt.

The Final Heat, scheduled for 5:00 PM but run at 6:00, was worth the wait. Thundercraft, Wilhelm Special and Golden Thunder roared off together in good water. Unocal and ThunderKids were late and trailed the distance. In an impressive display of super boat racing. Pierre Lavigne took the Golden Thunder to the outside and passed the two GP boats on the back chute.

On lap three, both Wilhelm Special and Thundercraft blew their engines entering turn #3. Golden Thunder lapped the other two entries on the next go-round. Lavigne won easily and became the first Canadian driver since 1961 to win any form of Unlimited-style race. That was the year the great Bob Hayward won his third Harmsworth Trophy with Miss Supertest III.

Jerry Schoenith presented Pierre with the Benjamin Cup, a 1913 motorboat racing trophy that he retrieved from the Wyandotte historical museum as the last prize offered by that community to a powerboat. It will be fitted with wooden bases and become a permanent award for all future River Roar victors.

Unfortunately, by 1988, the ATA was just a memory. Schoenith realized the costs and outside pressures were too much to overcome, and the automotive Thunderboat roar was silenced.

[Reprinted from Thunderboat, June 2011]